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Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender artists warn against the appropriation of queer imagery by straight artists

As the "gay aesthetic" goes mainstream who should owns queer culture?

As the US Supreme Court stands on the brink of a historic ruling that could make same-sex marriage a constitutional right in the US, homophobic barriers have been tumbling in art and popular culture for a long time. In theatre, television and pop music, being gay has become mainstream, while in the traditionally avant-garde art world, queer art (or art that draws on the codes and cultures of homosexuality) is no longer made only by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) artists.

Although this blurring of boundaries might seem like progress, with more and more people rejecting social and sexual “norms”, some artists who do not identify as gay have come under fire for their appropriation of queer imagery. A talk at Frieze London tomorrow will examine the recent trend for art and exhibitions that focus on queer and alternative sexualities (see box), and will ask: who has the right to use this imagery, and can anyone claim ownership of queer culture?

“One of the main concerns is that if your use of queer imagery is divorced from the complex lived experience of being a queer person, then the work might end up trading in stereotypes or being reductive,” says Paul Clinton, an editorial assistant at Frieze magazine who is chairing the talk. “If artists turn to the queer merely because it’s a fashionable topic, they run the risk of turning queerness into a style.”

In a scathing article posted on the Frieze blog earlier this year, the writer Jonathan Watts criticised the New York-based artist Jordan Wolfson for “flirting with” a gay aesthetic in his video Raspberry Poser, 2012, which was exhibited at the Chisenhale Gallery in London earlier this year. The video features several animated characters, including a condom filled with heart-shaped blood cells and bouncing HIV viruses, which Wolfson described in Interview magazine as “[floating] joyfully around, spinning and expanding and contracting”.

Watts was searing in his attack. “Actually, this harbinger moves with insipid joylessness through gentrified neighbourhoods that were once scenes of SoHo’s Aids pandemic,” he wrote. “Wolfson is not a punk [in the video he poses as one], nor is he gay. So is what we see here some post-identity dispatch from New York?” Watts concluded by admonishing Wolfson for using the Aids crisis as a vehicle to explore his own “anxieties” and “neuroses” about being an imposter. Watts also described Eddie Peake as another artist who “acts up” to a gay aesthetic. (Wolfson declined to comment for this article.)

The British-born artist Simon Fujiwara, who is on the Frieze London panel, suggests that educating straight artists who have begun to settle on queer territory is perhaps the best response. “It’s a small piece of land, so it’s understandable for some of the founders that it’s painful to share, especially when their efforts are not recognised, when the colonisers seem ignorant,” he says. “[But] what is there to do? Fight back with flags and swords? Or build a museum that explains to the new visitors the struggle that went into winning this land, [and] the dangers of abusing it?”

One of the criticisms levied at straight artists who “flirt” with queer imagery is that it can reduce homosexuality to the purely erotic. Sex plays a key part in Fujiwara’s work, but it is often used as a vehicle to explore other structures and systems—familial, political and architectural. “Historically, sex has been used in art in numerous ways,” he says. “Sex is at the forefront of a lot of what I do, but it’s at the forefront of everything in life. Growing up thinking I was gay made me realise how much of my life could be defined by what I do in bed, and it scared me and excited me. But soon I realised that it is also something that applies to straight people, to an extent.”

In his installation Welcome to the Hotel Munber, 2008-10, Fujiwara recreated a Spanish bar decked out with phallic objects—sausages, baguettes, bullhorns—and gay pornography. Part autobiography, part fiction, the bar becomes the set for an “erotic narrative” in which the artist casts his father as the gay protagonist (before Fujiwara was born, his parents ran a bar in southern Spain under General Franco’s dictatorship, when homosexual activity was outlawed and heavily suppressed). “One aspect of the piece was about testing the perception that identity in general is fixed, that it belongs to individuals,” Fujiwara says.

Feminists have also long opposed the idea that identity, particularly gender, is fixed. The British artist Linder, who wore a dress made of discarded chicken flesh for a performance at the Haçienda in Manchester in 1982, long before Lady Gaga’s raw-beef version, uses collage as a way of destroying and rebuilding narratives surrounding gender and sexuality. “Collage is a way of making things right by making them wrong. By definition, ‘collage’ means ‘to glue’, to make things stick together that don’t normally stick together,” she says.

Linder, who is taking part in the Frieze London talk, has been cutting up and collaging erotic images of women since the 1970s. More recently, she has turned her attention to gay pornography. In her “Magnitudes of Performance” series, 2012, Linder replaces male genitalia with domestic appliances and commodities: taps, stereos and watches. All sexualities, it seems, are subject to the same mutilations. “I try to establish an inner democracy between all of my source material so that a cut-out from a gay pornography magazine has no more charge than a cut-out of a television from a mail-order catalogue,” she says. “Straight artists have appropriated every aesthetic under the sun and have at times used, abused and exploited it. If there is a queer aesthetic, then it’s up for grabs and there’s no way to police it.”

Although much has changed since theorists started to use the term “queer” in the early 1990s, homophobia and repression are still an everyday reality for many artists. Gay people are persecuted in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, while homosexuality is illegal in 38 countries in Africa, according to Amnesty International. For Zanele Muholi, an artist and activist from South Africa, the gay-rights movement needs support from all quarters of the art world. “For artists in Africa, the terms ‘queer’ and ‘homosexual’ mean we are talking about life and death,” she says. “I don’t know if you can tell someone not to use [queer imagery], as long as it is handled in a sensitive and sensible way. We need allies; artists need to take a stand and support the movement, whether we are queer or not.”

• Feeling Used: the Appropriation of Sexuality, Frieze auditorium, tomorrow, 1pm

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Queer is here

A slew of recent exhibitions attests to art’s renewed interest in queer and alternative sexualities. In June 2013, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London hosted “Keep Your Timber Limber”, which included Tom of Finland’s erotic drawings from the 1950s and 1960s of happy, strapping gay men, as well as feminist-inspired drawings by Margaret Harrison. Tom of Finland’s works also appeared alongside Bob Mizer’s photographs of gay culture after the Second World War at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, last November. “Charming for the Revolution: a Congress for Gender Talent and Wildness”, a series of films, performance and symposia held in Tate Modern’s Tanks space in February 2013, explored “radical expressions of sexuality and gender”. Meanwhile, “Don’t You Know Who I Am? Art After Identity Politics”, which included artists such as Haegue Yang and Oscar Murillo, closed last month at the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Can we all be queer now?'